Field of Science

Welcome to Jurassic Park?

A fictional book that became a dino blockbuster, and it was on the telly last weekend! Jurassic Park is currently the 23rd highest-grossing film of all time - that's higher than Spider-man, Twilight and Independence day!

Jurassic Park is a story about the creation of dinosaurs using fossilised DNA. The scientists at Jurassic Park then filled in the gaps of this DNA with that of a frogs, and thus made lots of baby dinosaurs. The dinosaurs then inevitably escaped from their zoo-like enclosures, caused a lot of panic and, of course, ate a few people.

But.. this film was one of the first things that got me interested in science, which is a great thing. I wanted to be a dino-fighting palaeontologist! However, after realising palaeontology wasn't quite as exciting as Jurassic Park made out, I turned to microbiology.

I did however notice a Telegraph headline on my feed this afternoon that immediately grabbed my attention and reminded me of my dino-fighting palaeontologist dream!

Image: Velociraptors in Jurassic Park 3 and Sam Neil keeping it cool Universal Studios

"Jurassic Park 'extremely unlikely', scientists conclude."

Extremely unlikely. Improbable. These were the words used. The linking of the research to Jurassic Park was a great hook, however the research was on one of their cousins.. A bird known as a Moa. This looked very similar to today's Emu.

Basically the researchers from the Western Australian Murdoch University looked at the 'half-life' of DNA (this is the time it takes for half of the fossilised DNA to decay). They found that at an ideal temperature of -5 degrees Celsius it took 521 years for half of the DNA to disappear, and that after 6.8 million years there would be no DNA left.

This means that dinosaurs, which have been extinct for 65 million years, would have no fossilised DNA left. However, the time for DNA to fully decay is actually longer than was previously predicted (450-800,000 years), meaning that fossilised DNA from creatures that became extinct during this 6.8 million year window could possibly be obtained.

However, it's not that easy. The researchers said that environmental conditions such as temperature, microbial 'attack' and oxygenation can affect the DNA decay time, as well as the time and place the animal died and soil composition.

So, like the Telegraph says, it's 'improbable' that we could recreate 'Jurassic Park'
They didn't say 'impossible' tho..


LINKS!

The Proceedings of the Royal Society B paper
Murdoch University news story
The Telegraph news story
Highest grossing films list
Jurassic Park first official trailer
Jurassic Park official website


Some impressive facts about the internet!

Gamers solving an AIDS protein problem in 15 days, there are more devices connected to the internet than people on Earth! This is some impressive information/numbers about the internet and the power it has at communicating! Thought I'd share this with my Blog/Twitter followers!Power To The Online People

Provided by: open-site.org

Kissing bug - the real vampire of Latin America

A recent story in the New York Times yesterday not only grabbed my attention, but my Twitter followers too. What have been termed 'neglected tropical diseases' (diseases we usually associate with developing countries) have been seen increasingly in high poverty areas in the US.

To name but a few; Dengue fever (a viral infection transmitted by mosquitos), cysticercosis (epilepys and seizures caused by a tapeworm), toxocariasis (a parasitic infection that causes asthma and neurological problems, murine typhus (a bacterial infection passed by fleas from rodents).

These all sound incredibly horrible on their own, but the worst by far is Chagas disease. This is another parasitic disease transmitted from what is known as the 'kissing bug' - a cockroach-like creature that feeds on human blood! (move over Edward, you and your vampire mates are about to be replaced!).
This is the real 'vampire' of Latin America, however the first death was reported in the US last month.

Poverty is a major risk factor for the parasite that causes the disease, known as Trypanosoma cruzi, which is related to the parasite that causes 'sleeping sickness' in Africa. The disease starts of as a general feeling of unwell, a swollen bite mark and a fever, after which up to 20 years the parasite hides in the heart and digestive tissue - which can end up leading to heart failure and sudden death!

This will probably give me nightmares! The 'kissing bug' taken from: http://www.umm.edu/graphics/images/en/1244.jpg

''The new AIDS of Americas'': Experts warn of deadly insect-borne disease that can cause victims' hearts to explode.

This was the daily mail's take on this back in May with, of course, a very dramatic headline. This was in response to an article published in the PLOS neglected tropical diseases journal which also labels Chagas disease to AIDS which, in my opinion, was so that the authors got some publicity with their 'catchy/sexy' named article. The article however does not even mention 'exploding hearts', only 'heart failure'.
There are some similarities, however, between AIDS and Chagas in the fact that they both have long periods with no symptoms, however Chagas disease is treatable if diagnosed early. So an article saying 'Chagas is the new AIDS' was highly dramatised and irresponsible by the authors as the article was highly interesting and did not need such an extravagant title.

Articles in the Lancet and NATURE back in 2010 indicated that Chagas disease is a worldwide challenge and an emerging health problem in non-epidemic countries. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has also recognised the importance of these neglected tropical diseases at the World Health assembly in May this year.

But why has there been an increase in major poverty areas of the US? Well, no air conditioning creating humid environments, poor street drainage, sanitation, garbage and neglected swimming pools all create lovely conditions for these diseases to thrive. Not only this, these 'forgotten diseases' hit 'forgotten people', who do not often have access to healthcare, creating an even bigger and under-reported problem.

So, the risk to me and you? Incredibly low, however if you live in areas of poverty in America where this 'kissing bug' can thrive then you are at an increased risk, so it is important that you recognise the early symptoms of the disease (see the WHO fact sheet) and seek treatment.

References:
1. The New York Time's article: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/19/opinion/sunday/tropical-diseases-the-new-plague-of-poverty.html (accessed 19/08/12)
2. The Daily Mail article: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2151815/Chagas-disease-New-AIDS-Americas-cause-victims-hearts-explode.html (accessed 19/08/12)
3. Hotez PJ, Dumonteil E, Woc-Colburn L et al. (2012) Chagas Disease: "The new HIV/AIDS of the Americas". PLoS Negl Trop Dis. 6 (5): e1498 (http://www.plosntds.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pntd.0001498)
4. Rassi A and Marin-Neto JA (2010) Chagas Disease. The Lancet. 375 (9723) 1388-1402 (http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(10)60061-X/fulltext).
5. Coura JR, Vinas PA (2010) Chagas disease: a new worldwide challenge. Nature. 465 (S6-S7) (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v465/n7301_supp/full/nature09221.html)


Blog Update: The View From A Microbiologist

To my loyal Blog Followers: 
I am so sorry that I have not posted on this blog for the past couple of months (please forgive me!). This has been an incredibly busy time for me so I thought I'd fill you all in.


Job:

In April I had an interview at the Motor Neurone Disease Association in Northampton for the role of 'Research Information Communicator'. Due to not having an interview in 3 years, I was badly out of practice and endured a stressful month of preparing for an interview and deciding on what outfit to wear.


The good news was that somehow my interview went well and I was offered the job (which I started on Monday)! I couldn't believe my luck that I'd managed to get a job in the world of science communication!


PhD:

Due to being offered a job, I then had to focus on finishing my PhD lab work (with 8weeks from job acceptance to start date this was insanely busy!). Somehow, amongst the early mornings, late evenings and weekends I managed to finish all my lab work with 2weeks to spare!

So now I'm in the lovely position of writing journal paper articles and writing up my (gulp) 40,000 word thesis during my days off from my new job (it may take me a while..)

I'm also presenting a Scientific poster of some of my PhD results at a conference in Edinburgh in July (I still need to print this off!)


House:

The realisation of my job being in Northampton and me living in Leicester (with a 100mile trek each day!) gave me a nice opportunity to finally move out of my parent's house and in to a house in Northampton with Danny (my partner).

Due to this being our first house together, we've spent the past 2months buying house stuff and finding somewhere nice to live. We moved in 2weeks ago, got our sofa Wednesday and are still living out of boxes!


Overall:

A very busy period of me life. New job, New house, New life...
  • I love having my own place with Danny, it's lovely having our first home together :)
  • As for ending my PhD lab work, it was a bit sad.. But writing up my Thesis means I can't escape the bacteria really.. and the possibility of doing further research in the future? I'm a scientist, it's bound to happen by the end of the year! ;)
  • My science communication career is just beginning and working with the Motor Neurone Disease Association is an exciting challenge that I look forward to facing with the best of my ability.


This Blog:

Don't worry! In between writing my Thesis, and days off from work, I'm bound to procrastinate and you'll find my blog posts will pick up again to once or twice a month :)

In the mean time you can view some of my 'Guest Blogs' which I update regularly on the right hand side of my page.


Chocolate and Microbes this Easter

With Easter Sunday this week, and before we all start munching on chocolate eggs, I thought I'd write a blog post about chocolate and microbiology.

You may be thinking: 'Does this means that Sam is going to scare me with microbe-related horror chocolate stories to ruin my chocolate eating fest?' and my answer is: 'Yes, sorry!'


Taken from http://www.guardian.co.uk


Cadbury's chocolate
In 1824 a certain 'John Cadbury' opened a small confectionery shop in Birmingham that, as well as chocolate, served tea and coffee. From its humble beginnings on Bull street in Birmingham, this purple giant chocolate company has grown to be one of the largest confectionery producers in the UK.

However, (the chocolate horror story begins!) In June 2006 Cadbury's withdrew a million chocolate bars. This was not because the employees fancied having all the chocolate to themselves BUT was due to fears of them being contaminated with a rare strain of Salmonella (BBC News 24/6/2006)!

How could this have happened? and what is this 'rare' Salmonella?

Cadbury's withdrew the chocolate bars as a precautionary measure due to a leaking pipe at a Cadbury's plant being the potential source according to the Health Protection Agency (HPA) who identified the bacterium. This leaking pipe could have contaminated the products causing Cadbury's to react to the situation.

Cadbury's reacted like this as there is NO safe level for Salmonella in chocolate due to low numbers of the organism being capable of causing severe disease. "The 'fat' in chocolate can also protect the bacterium from normal intestinal defences" - Prof. Hugh Pennington (Aberdeen University).

The 'montevideo' strain of Salmonella found is very rare and not one of the top 3 most common strains in the UK. It causes Salmonellosis or 'severe food poisoning' (abdominal cramps, diarrhoea, vomiting etc.) in individuals and can be fatal in young children or the elderly due to dehydration and salt loss. However, most cases usually resolve in 4-7 days.




Worry not..

There you go, it's not just chicken, eggs and beef which can potentially cause food poisoning - most foods can! All it takes is one bacterium to make its way in to the food process and outbreaks can occur.

This story shows how well the food industry responds to potentially contaminated products. Precautionary measures are always best when it comes to potential food poisoning outbreaks and Cadbury's acted responsibly in order to protect consumers.

So enjoy those chocolate eggs! :)


References:
http://www.Cadbury.co.uk
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news

Love is in the air (and microbes too)

With Valentine’s day fast approaching and love being well and truly in the air it got me thinking, could the bacteria we live with be somewhat involved?

The bacteria living in a commensal, symbiotic or sometimes pathogenic relationship with us are often deemed separate organisms that have no influence on humans, be it by matters of the mind, or the heart. We feel in control of our feelings and our minds, how could an organism so tiny, and nowhere near as complex, influence us?
Well, love is often described as an incontrollable feeling that ‘just happens’ and causes us to often do crazy things.
The Hologenome theory states that the host (humans) plus all of its microbiota (bacteria in the gut etc.) is a single unit (I. Z. Rosenberg & E. Rosenberg 2008). This microbiota plays an important role in health and disease within humans. Therefore, this theory of the relationship between us and our bacteria, seems to make sense.
Our own natural scent (body odor) is unique to every one of us. Bacteria feed on the unique, individual proteins on our skin and release these gasses which become our personal scent. We also produce ‘pheromones’ that are different for men and women and also aid in attraction. It may not smell as sweet as the ‘flowered scented’ perfume, but it’s said to play a part in human attraction and love.
Not only can our bacteria influence when we’re ill and how we digest food – they may also be involved in our personalities, and even our love lives!
A study has shown that our gut microbiota and our brain ‘communicate’ which can influence personality and memory (J. F. Cryan & S. M. O’Mahoney 2011). The term ‘gut feeling’ might actually mean something, and your personality is also an attractive tool when looking for love.
It’s not just our personality our gut can influence. Scientists have been able to change the sexual preferences of fruit flies by altering their gut microbiota (G. Sharon et al. 2010). These scientists showed how a certain bacterial species could influence mating. Could this happen to humans? No studies have been done to show how our own microbiota may influence our sexual choice. However, due to all of us having varied diets, and therefore varied microbiota, it could be possible. So our gut bacteria may have a part to play when it comes to finding ‘the one’.

Happy Valentine's Day :-)


References:
I. Z. Rosenberg & E. Rosenberg (2008)http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1574-6976.2008.00123.x/abstract

What's lurking in the tomato ketchup?

Turkey breasts, Cucumbers, Korma sauces and now.. Watermelons! It seems no food is safe when it comes to microbial contamination. Barely does a month go by without a contaminated food source lurking somewhere amongst the news headlines.
Taken from http://www.telegraph.co.uk

How often does this happen? Are all foods at risk?

Last year Germany's Escherichia coli outbreak was associated with unwashed bean sprouts and caused severe food poisoning (including deaths) in hundreds across Europe (BBC News, 30/05/11). Scotland's Clostridium botulinum outbreak caused two to be hospitalised due to the severe disease Botulism, that was associated with contaminated jars of korma sauce (BBC News, 14/11/11). Last week a Salmonella newport outbreak has caused one death and has been linked to watermelons (BBC News, 02/02/12).

Due to the UK importing a large number of foods from abroad, these food poisoning cases can spread rapidly through the community. Manufacturing large 'bulk' amounts of packaged foods also increases the risks. So, the likely hood of microbes entering the food supply chain is high.
But don't be scared to eat any food again, the majority of these microbes are killed during cooking (e.g. beef and chicken) hence most illnesses occur when either of these are undercooked or contaminated with raw meat.

The Botulism case was due to the type of bacterium present. Clostridium botulinum produces a deadly toxin (poison), this toxin will then remain in the food even if the organism dies. This toxin is so deadly because it attacks the nervous system, causes blurred vision and small quantities can be deadly (1g could kill the whole of the UK population).
In terms of fruit and vegetables, simply washing before cooking/eating is usually all that is required.
Pre-packaged food, particularly food that does not require heating, is where the major problem lies. However, these 'pre-packaged' types of food poisoning rarely occur.

Strict security guards are present in food manufacturing to prevent microbiological contamination and treatments such as pulsed electronic fields, heat and Ultra-violet (UV) treatment are used for ready-to-eat foods.
Samples are regularly checked for contamination and 'food poisoning risk'. The Health Protection Agency (HPA) have a set of guidelines that manufactures must rely on, which provides the minimum total number allowed by each organism (HPA Guidelines, 2008).

With all these measures put in place to prevent food poisoning, in an ideal world it should not happen. However, the food manufacturers can only do so much - they must rely on the public/food outlet to do the rest.



References
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-16854176 Salmonella and watermelons (accessed 6/2/12)
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-13592765 E.coli outbreak 2011 (accessed 6/2/12)
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-15712910 Clostridium botulinum and Korma sauce (accessed 6/2/12)

http://www.hpa.org.uk/webc/HPAwebFile/HPAweb_C/1194947422163 HPA Guidelines for the microbiological quality of some ready-to-eat foods sampled at the point of sale (2000)